I was woken by the horn of a heavy goods train travelling in the opposite direction just east of the Kong River. By the time we had passed it and it had passed us, our train was in the middle of the bridge over the river. The two li long bridge over the river. Even allowing for the flood plain on either side that the rails avoided by taking the bridge, that was very long bridge.
I waited until we were off the bridge before I went and cleaned myself up in the carriage’s washroom before breakfast. Having Hu as my nearest sibling in age had given me an appreciation of engineering, if only because he’d sometimes let me play with him when our brothers didn’t want to help with whatever he was building at the time, and the bridges over the Kong were engineering marvels. The view from our compartment was to the north and I could not only see the road bridge almost three li away, but the remains of the older road bridges that lay between the two current crossings. There were roads across the flood plains as well, connecting the rice paddies to each other and to the farm buildings that sat above the usual danger mark. The paddies had been drained but the grain was still green, and so it was a peaceful, restful rural scene – for those of us who didn’t have to work in it.
I had just returned from the washroom when we pulled into Oofung to take on water and coal. No-one in our compartment was getting off there but we gained two more companions in the form of Mr and Scholar Chooi. Scholar Chooi taught Fu Period language, calligraphy and aesthetics at the Oofung School of Arts, while Mr Chooi was a landlord with property interests, as he told us, throughout Oofung, Bingshan, and Taohun Counties. The Choois were only to be with us for two stops as they were returning to Mr Chooi’s family home near Mengfu for the New Year celebrations. At first I thought Mr Chooi was mostly concerned with his own importance, but after a while I realised that much of his chatter was aimed at getting the other men talking and then, after he’d established that he, Master Que and Gao Wei all knew the manager of the Vault of Industrious Diligence in Diwei, that he was collecting contacts. Their conversation then veered off into a discussion of some local government scandal in Bingshan County that was, apparently, having repercussions, and I buried myself in The Guanzhou Affair again.
I reached the chapter end, which was just after the reveal of the disposition of Lady Ping’s property holdings on her husband’s death and what would happened if she remarried, and realized that I hadn’t yet had breakfast. I caught Master Que’s eye but he motioned that I should go without him, and so I took my book, made my apologies as I stepped over people’s legs and went off to eat. It wasn’t so late as I had feared and not only were they still serving breakfast, but the dining car was over half full. I was seated at a table with a grey haired man in blacks who grunted when I said, “Good morning,” and bowed, then did not look from his plate or newspaper for the entire time I was at the table. I filled myself on tea, rice, pickled vegetables, and a spiced tofu, while reading how Lady Wei had discovered who had been investigating the details of her friend’s property. When I said, “Goodbye,” and bowed farewell, my breakfast companion merely grunted again. He might have had bad manners or he might have had a bad night, not everyone can sleep in a train seat, and with twelve siblings I had learnt that there are really times when you do not poke.
The last thing I did before leaving the dining car was to sign Master Que and I up for making good luck dumplings with the dining car chefs after dinner. We were going to be on a train in the middle of nowhere when the year rolled over, and I had no idea how Master Que felt about things like celebratory dumpling making, but I was going to grab as much holiday as I could.
When I got back to the compartment Scholar Chooi insisted on showing me pictures of her children and grandchild. I thought they were a particularly photogenic group, and said so. “Oh, yes,” agreed Scholar Chooi, her frankly scraggy face lighting up with love and enthusiasm, “so unlike me. I sometimes wonder whether my children got swapped out at birth by fairies, except none of them were difficult babies.”
“They’ve all got your nose or your eyebrows,” I pointed out helpfully, “and some people just don’t photograph well because the camera only freezes a fraction of a second in place instead of showing the entire sequence of an expression. Have you considered having a portrait painted, if that’s an option? Painters can sometimes render a better overall likeness.”
“Oh, no,” demurred Scholar Chooi. “That would be a pointless extravagance, especially since I’ve only just had my formal picture taken with the faculty.”
“I think it would be a most excellent idea,” boomed Mr Chooi happily. “Perhaps if we have you painted while you’re playing with Chooi Ban,” their grandchild, “you’ll see yourself as being as pretty as he and I think you are.”
Scholar Chooi smiled, blushed, and made, “No, no,” noises, and I could see Mr Chooi’s point entirely. I had absolutely no idea what Mr Chooi was like as a landlord, but I could see that he was almost certainly one version of a very good husband. Which led me to the thought that maybe there was more than one type of good husband. Which in turn led me to the idea that there might be more than one type of good wife, in which case – what or which was I likely to be? I spent some time staring out the window at the scenery, letting thoughts wisp their way through my brain.
I didn’t really pay attention to what was going on in the compartment again until the conductor came through to warn passengers to be ready to alight at Sowchong.
That was the signal for Mr Gao to make his preparations to leave us, and Mr Bai helped him get his bag down from the overhead rack. We all made our farewells and when the train stopped, Mr Bai headed back to the luggage car to collect a trunk he had travelling in the care of the guard. The Choois were surprised that the rest of stayed in our seats and didn’t take the opportunity to take a walk on the platform while the engine was watered and the coal was topped up, but Master Que and Mr Bai had just finished explaining the ticketing problem in the capital when three people turned up to claim Mr Gao’s seat.
Outside in the corridor arguments erupted at the doors to the compartments on either side of us. Master Que sighed, looked at me, and turned to the newcomers to ask, “How far are you going?”
As it turned out, they were all going to Mengfu Junction, which made sense because taking our train halved the journey time, more if you considered the all stations options, and would get them there in nice time for the evening’s festivities without being rushed. It was just a pity that two of them had been sold tickets for seats that didn’t exist. The Choois were amenable to having two extra people in the compartment, as long as one of them didn’t sit between them, so Scholar Mang sat between Scholar Chooi and myself, while Miss Quong sat next to Mr Bai. Miss Wing, however, was not amenable to being in a compartment with two extra people and wanted the other two to leave.
“Yours may not be the ticket that the conductor honours,” pointed out Master Que quietly. “If you demand that he be ruthless, then you may be one of those culled.”
“Besides,” I added, “if we’re all sitting quietly when he comes through to sort out the problems, then he’s more likely to decide that he doesn’t have to do anything with us at all. Particularly if he’s had to deal with fights, arguments and tears all the way through first class,” I added.
“I promise that I won’t bite,” Master Que assured her as he patted the space on the seat between himself and Miss Quong.
“It’s not you biting me that I’m worried about,” retorted Miss Wing.
“Oh, my student here has been encouraging me to be verminless since she was about seven,” Master Que smiled in my direction.
“To be fair,” I chipped in, “I don’t think that was ever a problem with you, I remember one of my brothers came home covered in something and that started me off.”
“You smell disgusting.” The collective intake of breath from the rest of the compartment was definitely apprehensive.
“It’s a lotion I use,” replied Master Que calmly. “You must be one of that very small number of people who can not only smell red tree tar but find the odour offensive. I can wash it off as soon as our seats are confirmed and the train gets started.”
It was Mr Chooi who responded. “You mean red tar has a smell?”
“If it’s that bad for you, I can sit next to him and you can sit here,” offered Miss Quong.
“Well, that would be very kind of both of you,” Miss Wing was suddenly flustered. “I’m not used to people accepting that there’s a smell they can’t pick up, and sometimes it’s everywhere.”
“Red tree tar is a cheap but effective ingredient used in a lot of low end arthritis treatments,” Master Que. “I use it because it works, but it does have a downside. I once saw someone walk into a gym full of people using it, and they turned hard right into the washrooms and threw up. Raising it as a problem is better than having you be sick.”
A grateful Miss Wing took the place beside Mr Bai, Miss Quong moved next to Master Que and Scholar Mang offered us all honey flavoured travel lozenges from a fresh tin he pulled out of his coat pocket before breaking the seal in front of us. When the conductor came through we were all chatting like old friends, so he simply checked the tickets and wrote something in a notebook before moving on to the next compartment – I was sure he braced himself before he passed out of my sight. The train did leave on time and I was surprised that we didn’t seem to leave any intending passengers behind on the platform. We continued our discussion on common genetic quirks, I hadn’t realised that not everyone could roll their tongue in from the sides, until the general traffic in the corridor seemed to have stopped, and then Master Que kept his promise and went to wash off his lotion.
On his return I couldn’t smell anything different about him, but Miss Wing looked relieved and thanked him for his consideration.
The rest of the morning passed, I believe, fairly companionably. Scholar Chooi and Scholar Mang established that they were in different fields, he was a mathematician, and then discussed several relatively local issues of personalities and institution funding before Scholar Mang pulled out a book of maths puzzles and Scholar Chooi turned her attention back to her husband. In the meantime he and Mr Bai had been talking sports that weren’t gi, while Master Que and the two ladies had been discussing arthritis remedies. I read a few more letters in Notes Betwixt and looked at the passing scenery.
When Master Que and I went to lunch we discovered why the extra passengers hadn’t been left on the platform back in Sowchong. It was because they’d been allowed to travel in the dining car. Some of these travellers were defending any encroachment on “their” tables by other passengers wanting somewhere to eat lunch as an intolerable incursion on their personal space and rights, but Master Que and I had the good fortune to be seated with a lady who had chosen to regard the dining car as a travelling tea shop which was providing her with a stream of tablemates with which to while away her day. While we were with her, she had nothing bad to say about anyone, even her brother who had been supposed to organise her ticket for her. When she observed that she was to have met him on the train, Master Que asked gently whether he had been coming from the capital.
“Oh, yes,” she smiled. “I heard that a lot of people who tried to get on in the capital weren’t allowed to travel because their tickets weren’t real. I have wondered whether he might have tried a bit too hard to show us all how clever he is.” She smiled again and I realised that this lady had not only avoided giving her name when we introduced ourselves, she was definitely not as simple as she was portraying herself.
We continued in polite conversation while we finished our meal and when we got up to leave, I don’t think we had learned anymore about her than that she had a brother. When I looked back as we left the dining car, she was already greeting a new set of tablemates, her attention completely upon them. I suddenly wondered if she was like Madam Jochen whom I’d learned was a professional social facilitator and, if so, why she chose not to give out her personal or professional name. However, she seemed to be doing no harm and thus it was not any business of mine.
We went back to our compartment, expecting the next stop to be Mengfu Junction. Shortly after our return to our seats though, just as Master Que was settling into an afternoon nap, the conductor came through the carriage announcing that we would shortly be stopping at Chomifong.
Mr Chooi was quick enough to ask what we were all thinking, “Excuse me, but where’s that? Aside from on the train line, I mean. I’ve travelled this line quite a lot and we’ve never stopped there before.”
“It’s a private station, sir.” The conductor gave a small smile, “The result of an arrangement between the railway company and the land owner when the line was first built. We are required to stop on, and only on, arrangement.” With that he moved on with his duties.
Naturally that started a whole train of conversation. Mr Bai was able to explain the background of such arrangements to Miss Wing who’d expressed surprise that such things existed outside romantic or historical novels. Scholar Chooi tried to remember if there were any notable houses in the area, and Miss Quong speculated on who would be joining or leaving the train, all the while admitting that her ideas were based on the sort of novels Miss Wing had described. After a few minutes of general conversation in this vein, Master Que said he thought that the name was vaguely familiar, although he couldn’t place it, and Scholar Mang agreed, adding that the mathematician Sung Mah (no relation of mine that I’ve ever heard of) came to mind.
“Ah, the artilleryman,” added Master Que.
“Only during the Northern Invasion,” replied Scholar Mang. “I’m surprised that you’ve heard that about him.”
“I probably read it in a book,” Master Que waved a hand as if to dismiss any suggestion of unexpected erudition. “I went through a stage, years ago, when I read extensively about the War of the Northern Invasion.”
“That would no doubt explain it,” agreed Scholar Mang gravely. “I wish I could put my finger on why I connect him to Chomifong though.”
I was looking out the window and at that moment the train began to slow as we came into the private station. The platform on my side of the train was neatly kept, if sparsely furnished. Beyond the platform there was a road or parking area and beyond that were two entrance gates. One was a vermilion-painted gate of the type that you see in historical movies leading into great estates. The other was clearly the gateway to a funerary temple and its associated cemetery. The vermilion gate proclaimed itself the guardian of the Estate of the Hsien Clan of Chomifong while the funerary gate declared the boundaries of the Temple of the Martyred Loyalists of the Third Moon Massacre.
I asked bleakly, “Could Sung Mah have been buried here? Perhaps after he was captured and executed by the invaders?”
“How did you know that was how he died?” Scholar Mang turned to look at me in surprise.
“I didn’t,” I pointed out the window, “but that made it seem rather likely.”
“The provincial army group under General Man Ho was trapped by Northern forces under General Smith Kirby,” said Master Que slowly and with a very odd expression on his face, “when the Northern forces created a flood on the Kwaizhu River by destroying the upstream dam. With a quarter of his men and equipment swept away in the onset of the floods, no other retreat route and overmatched by the opposing forces, General Man surrendered in order to save the lives of his remaining forces, most of whom were local militia. Despite the assurances he had received from General Smith, all of them, including General Man, were executed by the Northern forces.”
“And they were buried here? Or at least, memorialized,” I added.
He shook himself. “Yes, it appears so. “You can’t see the funerary temple from where you’re sitting, of course, but it looks to be a very fine one. Erected after the occupation from the style, but what would you expect with a name like that?”
“Indeed,” agreed Scholar Mang.
While we had been talking, the conductor had gone onto the platform to speak to a tall man dressed in blacks cut in an unusually severe style. The two of them had entered the train together but the train hadn’t pulled out. After a few minutes three people left the train: the conductor who deposited someone’s luggage on the platform and climbed back onto the train; the man who’d gone aboard with the conductor; and the lady with whom Master Que and I had had lunch. Miss Quong was so eager to see what was going on that I let her sit on my lap so we could stickybeak together. She was in time to see the two people on the platform exchange formal greetings and she agreed with me later that if anything, the lady had been the more important of the two. For a few moments it was so much like the way my older sisters had acted together that I was homesick for my family, but then I remembered that the charmed circle of shared girlish enthusiasms and experiences had never included me.
Now that I’d pretty much officially left home, it was never going to.
This is now followed by Dumplings!